Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Civil Society, Human Rights and the U.S. Government

Proposals for Civil Society to Help Improve Human Rights Consultations with the U.S. Government

 By Lauren E. Bartlett

About a decade ago, a broad group of human rights advocates in the U.S. began actively engaging the U.S. Government through human rights consultations.  These consultations are designed to provide an opportunity for civil society to engage the U.S. Government directly about its international human rights obligations and commitments.  Under the Universal Periodic Review process, these consultations between government and civil society are specifically “encouraged” by the U.N. Human Rights Council.  For example, in 2010 human rights consultations have included a series of consultations documented on the humanrights.gov website including the consultation on access to justice previously mentioned on this blog, a consultation on indigenous human rights issues held in Oklahoma, and the racial discrimination consultations held earlier this week. 

 There has been quite a bit of advocacy by human rights advocates with U.S. government officials organizing the consultations, including by the U.S. Human Rights Network in particular, to improve the efficiency and efficacy of the consultations.  That advocacy has let to substantial changes, including but not limited to the addition of oral responses by government officials to civil society presentations during consultations, the inclusion of some local and state officials as well as federal officials present at consultations, and some consultations being held outside of D.C. 

However, there is still room for improvement.   Many of us leave these meetings feeling like our time could have been spent more effectively elsewhere.   It is more or less the same cast of characters advocating for the same issues on the civil society side.  On the government side, it is a lot of the same officials listening to the same presentations, though there are some new officials at each meeting.  Often the government reports and responses at the human rights reviews in Geneva are not, or only somewhat, responsive to the civil society presentations at these consultations and other meetings.  

With the perfect storm of U.N. human rights reviews taking place this year, there will be many additional human rights consultations with the U.S. Government in the months ahead.  With more than a decade of experience with these consultations behind us, I propose that human rights advocates in the U.S. step back, take stock, and look at what we could be doing differently, towards more effective and impactful consultations and advocacy in general. 

 Below, I propose just a few steps that civil society should take.  These proposals aim to bring the consultations more in line with the human rights framework and human rights principles, such as the rights to civic participation, equality, and self-determination.  I also want to encourage others to weigh in with their own proposals, as well.

 Towards more effective and impactful human rights consultations with the U.S. Government, civil society should:

 1)      Prioritize supporting persons directly affected by human rights issues to speak during the consultations.  Too often the civil society presenters are academics, students, lawyers, and others speaking on behalf of persons directly affected.  We, as civil society, need to do a better job of making sure that the voices of the people directly affected are brought to the table.  Not only because presentations made by persons directly affected are more impactful, but because it is empowering and fulfilling for the people presenting.  Presentations by persons directly affected can be recorded and played during the consultation, video conferencing technology should be available, and, as a last resort, testimony can be read aloud if travel is impossible and technology fails.

 2)      Offer to host human rights review consultations outside of D.C.  The U.S. Government should be organizing most, if not all, human rights consultations outside of D.C.  Persons directly affected by the human rights issues are most often not in D.C. and it is difficult and expensive to have civil society travel to D.C.  Moreover, technology is available to live stream consultations to government offices in D.C., making travel for the government officials less of a problem.  To encourage consultations to be held outside of D.C., civil society should offer to host the consultations.  For example, universities across the U.S. could host the human rights consultations.  Universities have large event spaces that go largely under used during the summer months, as well as the necessary communications technology to live stream the events.  Universities also have an interest in having their students benefit from observing and participating in these consultations. 

 3)      Make thoughtful and tangible recommendations and asks of the government.  Civil society presenters can do a better job of making requests that keep in mind which government agencies are participating in the consultation and what policies are within their reach to change or effect.  We may not know exactly which government officials are present, but we should know which agencies are present and recent advocacy by civil society has led to a broad group of agencies and high-level officials being present at consultations.  Presenters can tailor requests keeping in mind the audience.  Requests in shadow reports and written submissions can be and should be broader, but with many civil society members desiring to present and limited time for presenting, requests made during consultations should be relevant to the officials in the room.  








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